Alexander Tochilovsky is a teacher at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York and also curator of its Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography. On the side he runs a design studio called ME/AT with Mike Essl. Alexander co-edited our new book Herb Lubalin: American Graphic Designer (1918-81).
You live in New York, the most exciting city in the world (apart from London of course). Where do you like to spend your spare time?
New York is a sublime collision of culture and history, the residue of which is quite visible, if you know where to look for it. In the warmer months, I walk around the neighborhoods near my apartment, looking for old signage.
I live in the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn, proximal to the relatively inactive, though significantly gentrified, waterfront; a relic which was previously a vibrant landmark. Currently imbued with high-rise condos, the ports of yore have left a distinct physical mark on the landscape. The neighborhoods adjoining the waterfront contain a fascinating blend of industrial and residential structures. These apparent contradictions have historically coexisted.
Filled with amazing buildings and architectural wonders, each brilliantly christened neighborhood (i.e. Vinegar Hill) is home to a variety of signs and letterforms. I tend to wander without an intended destination, intuitively attracted to the most interesting details. In most cases, the found-lettering draws me in. Often, friends keep me company and I show them the lost pieces of New York that Lonely Planet has yet to discover. It's a great socializing mechanism.
Aside from these walks, I'm partial to devouring native New York cuisine. Most of my spare time is spent in restaurants, a favorite of which is Supper, an East Village institution. Though it's not expensive, the food is always consistent and attentively prepared. The atmosphere is both casual and related; I like to sit at the counter facing the exposed kitchen where I can watch the chefs conduct their kitchen. It's a spectacle of efficiency and craft.
Are there any must-see exhibitions this summer?
Of the must-see exhibitions there is the recently opened Lunch Hour NYC exhibition (image below) at New York Public Library, chronicling the evolution of the lunch experience in New York.
The free Cooper-Hewitt exhibition, Graphic Design — Now in Production (image below), on Governors Island (a small island in the NY harbor, facing the south tip of Manhattan), is a great exhibit made even greater for the fact that you have to take a ferry to get to it. A ride which gives you an amazing view of the New York waterfront.
The Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language exhibition (image below) currently at MoMA is worth a visit. It showcases artists dealing with language, which would appeal to a lot of designers. Dexter Sinister wrote and designed the companion catalogue.
What other places (bookshops, coffee houses, museums) would you recommend to visiting designers?
Other places worth visiting are: Zakka, the Japanese design book store located in the Dumbo area of Brooklyn. Of course I recommend visiting the Lubalin Center. There is a great second-hand bookshop in the East Village, called Mast Books, where one can score a copy of Eros magazine, designed by Herb Lubalin, for $10. It also has an amazing selection of mid-century period books with jackets designed by the likes of Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, or George Salter.
For coffee head to Blue Bottle Coffee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I'm not an avid coffee drinker myself, but at Blue Bottle they have elevated the craft to a level that has to be experienced. It's worth just the visit itself, but don't be surprised if, on a busy day, you have to wait 30 minutes for a cup of coffee.
Now for some personal questions regarding culture. What are you currently reading - books, magazines, blogs?
In the past few years I've developed a nasty habit of starting more than one book at a time, and not being able to finish all of them. I partially blame this on my commute and an unpredictable schedule. I have a book or two that I read on the subway, and books I like to read on longer trips out of town. Yet others are better for reading at home. My overall list of books is scattered in genre, though generally heavy on non-fiction.
Currently on my list are the following: a historical account of my birth city, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams; The Gangs of New York, a book written at the turn of the century, and inspiration for the eponymous Scorsese film; F. Scott Fitzgerald's On Booze: a collection of stories and letters, unsurprisingly, about every New Yorker’s vice of preference; four short stories by Gogol in Russian, with a companion French translation, picked up during a recent visit to Paris; Simon Kuper's Soccer Men, a insightful portrayal of the most prominent figures in football.
I did manage to finish a thorough account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, entitled One Minute to Midnight. Coincidentally, it also has a great cover, which had initially piqued my interest (image below). I also finished a book by one of the true Mad Men of the 60s, Jerry Della Femina, From those Wonderful Folks Who Gave you Pearl Harbor (image below). It’s essential for fans of the TV show Mad Men seeking first-hand accounts of the advertising revolution during the period. You may also spot some plot lines from the show.
I'm not a devoted blog reader, but I spend a good deal of time reading the Guardian's coverage of football events. I like their blend of wit, fact and opinion.
What are you listening to at the moment? Have you seen any good live gigs recently?
The Jamaican music from the 60s and 70s is something I return to time and again. So, lots of Dub, Reggae, and their interpretation of the Motown classics. Similar to books I tend to listen to too many things at the same time.
At the moment my playlist besides Jamaican music also has some early punk, post punk, British Ska, surf, garage, minimal electronic, electro, and I am a little late to this party, but I've been listening to lots of the bands most closely aligned with the label Minimal Wave, music which is often referred to as Cold Wave. It reminds me of some of the early synthesizer-driven music made in the Soviet Union in the 80s - which was my childhood soundtrack.
A great live gig I recently saw was by Ben Sollee, a cellist from Kentucky who comes to New York once a year, but otherwise tends to tour around Kentucky on a specially made bicycle-rig to transport his equipment (image below). He has a great voice, and a simple stripped-down sound of a cello and a percussionist. It is minimal but very effective and soulful. His gigs are always small and very intimate, which end with him mingling with the crowd, chatting and socializing.
I was recently in Copenhagen and caught a similar show at a small community-run bar, by a band from Mälmo, Sweden, called the Crying Day Care Choir. A great, care-free show with some really talented but down-to-earth musicians. It was the night that Sweden’s Loreen won the Eurovision competition, so there was an impromptu performance of the winning entry Euphoria as the bartenders were attempting to close down the place for the night.
What is your favourite film of all time?
The five Antoine Doinel films by François Truffaut are perhaps my absolute favorite. I am partial to The 400 Blows (image below), the first in the series, but all others are equally fascinating in terms of tracking one character's life. The 400 Blows seems to perfectly feed into my preoccupation with the 60s. I am also a big fan of Jacques Tati's Play Time (image below), which I think is an ultimate graphic designer's film. It has immaculate timing and absolute control of the construction and composition of each frame of the film.
Anything exciting going on in the digital realm, for instance some life-altering apps or interesting people on twitter?
Since I tend to research and write a bit more these days, two apps have been really useful. I have found the Evernote app perfect for compiling and organizing notes. iA Writer is equally perfect for writing in a completely no-frills manner: no menus, no fancy features, just the text and your thoughts. It's everything that a simple text editor should be, and has come to replace my reliance on TextEdit.
In terms of the social media, I tend to keep tabs on @ZonalMarking, written by Michael Cox, a brilliant analyzer of football tactics. His own website is a great site for me to geek out on the intricate tactical movements of football teams. Michael offers great analysis and insight into the often-invisible minutia of any given match.
Alexander is co-editor of Unit's newest book Herb Lubalin: American Graphic Designer (1918-81), chronicling the life and work of the legendary designer Herb Lubalin, from his years as an original 'Mad Man' in 50s-60s New York to one of the world's most influential typographers and designers. It is available for pre-order until 13 August for a reduced price.